Oedipus was pretty sure that the Sphinx’s request for help finding her contact lens was a trap. Sight jokes!
Oedipus the King, Episode 1: In which Thebes suffers from a plague, and King Oedipus suffers from a wildly inflated sense of his own self-importance.
Let’s face it: reading Ancient Greek tragedies is difficult and depressing (although totally worth it). So we’ve launched The Editing Sciptorium, a series where we present an abridged version of a tragedy, like if the medieval monks who copied out the original Greek plays by hand were poorly supervised and in a saucy mood. Shout-out to The Editing Room, whose abridged film scripts inspired the Muses.
[SETTING: Outside Oedipus’ palace in Thebes. Due to the conventions of Greek theater, this palace is represented as a single story backdrop with three doors leading onto the stage. Deal with it.]
CHORUS: King Oedipus! Help us, your people!
OEDIPUS: (entering) Here I am! O children of Thebes, why all this lamentation and prayers? I have come here, in person, in order to hear your answer, rather than relying on a third-party messenger, since those lead to misunderstandings. And before you say anything, no, this is not at all a case of Chekhov’s “misunderstanding by messenger,” why would you even ask that? (to PRIEST) You, priest, tell me what is wrong and what you need of me, and I will grant it, for that is what a good king does.
PRIEST: Well, since you apparently haven’t noticed, we’re all dying of the plague. People are dying, cattle are dying, there’s so many dead carcasses lying around the stench has to have reached the adjacent palace by now. Even a blind man could smell it. Get it? See what I did there? Hope you like it, because there’s going to be a lot of sight-foreshadowing going on here.
OEDIPUS: What, do you think I’m an idiot? I must have known about the plague, since I’ve already sent a messenger to Delphi to ask the Oracle for a solution.
PRIEST: But didn’t you just say…never mind. Anyway, help us Oedipus, for only you can! It was you who delivered Thebes from the Sphinx, do not abandon us now!
OEDIPUS: The Sphinx? That was a man-eating monster with a penchant for riddles that I defeated by solving her shockingly easy word play challenge. How would that qualify me to address what is clearly a public sanitation issue?
PRIEST: Whatever, apparently we’re ready to blindly follow our leader in an epidemic, just because he had success in a wildly different sphere and claims to really, really like us.
OEDIPUS: Never fear, my people, for I am a good king, and feel your pain. In fact, my suffering is greater than yours, because while you mourn only your individual suffering, I feel everyone’s suffering all together.
PRIEST: Wow. Way to make this all about you.
OEDIPUS: Behold! Here, conveniently, arrives Creon, my wife’s brother, whom I sent to Delphi to ask how to lift the plague. Creon, what says Apollo?
CREON: Good news! But do you really want to discuss this, like, right here, in front of everyone? You have no idea what the Oracle told me, and her messages are always crazy weird.
OEDIPUS: Whatever you have to say to me, you can say in front of all my people.
CREON: It seems like just declassifying messages willy-nilly could have huge security implications, but what do I know. The Oracle says we must heal the festering wound left by the murderers in our midst.
OEDIPUS: Does she have some particular murderers in mind, or is this a general tough on crime platform?
CREON: Well, remember our king named Laius…
OEDIPUS: I have heard his name, but never met him.
CREON: What? Of course you never met him, he was your direct predecessor. Your entire rule is predicated on the power vacuum he left behind. Why would you say this, except for more foreshadowing? This is for the audience, isn’t it.
OEDIPUS: Look, 75% of the dialogue of this play is going to be “dramatic irony,” where the audience knows something the characters don’t, and gets to feel all superior because of it. Just accept that characters will be saying and doing things constantly that make no sense without an active audience watching. Otherwise I can’t SEE how we’ll make any progress.
CREON: Cool. Anyway, Laius was murdered, and the Oracle says Apollo’s wicked pissed we haven’t punished the murderers.
OEDIPUS: But where are the murderers? Where did Laius fall? Did no one have any information at the time?
CREON: Slow your true-crime podcast, there, Oedipus. Apparently the murderers are here in Thebes, when he left Laius said he was going to see the Oracle and we never saw him again, and the single witness reported a single fact.
OEDIPUS: But one single key fact is the basis of all detective stories! What was it?
CREON: He said that the king was attacked by a group of many thieves. Lots. Multiple. Plural thieves.
OEDIPUS: What a weird thing to reiterate. But even in a group, what sort of robbers dare to attack a king? Unless they were paid to do so by someone in the city?
CREON: That’s what we thought, that you’d have to be a colossal ass to attack a royal travel party without prior incentive. But we never followed up on this lead.
OEDIPUS: Why not? Your king had been murdered!
CREON: Well, we were having this little problem with a man-eating Sphinx who was killing off the population. As you may recall. It’s why you were crowned king. Because when you walked in from defeating the Sphinx, we were all so relieved that we made you our king, a process that involved marrying our widowed queen, for some reason. This will not be explained.
OEDIPUS: Well, I’m pretty sure I can solve this problem that has puzzled our city for nearly a decade, apparently without my knowledge, despite it being directly relevant to my position and marriage. Priest, people of Thebes, no more need for prayers. Pack up your things. Oedipus has got this. (exits with CREON)
CHORUS: (dancing in a slow circle to very creepy music—no, I’m not making that up) Oh gods, we are really having a time of it down here. There’s all sorts of suffering going on, but we will focus on women not being able to have children, because we want to be in on the whole foreshadowing act, too. Come, all the gods, and help us. But not Ares, god of violence, he’s a sociopathic lunatic.
Stay tuned for the rest of the play, to find out—DRAMATICALLY—what happens. And to learn more about the myth of Oedipus, enroll in CLAS-C 205 Classical Mythology, coming up as a late-start class in Fall 2023, and earn GEC credits while you’re at it! Can’t get enough of Ancient Greece and Rome? Earn a Classics Minor in just 15 credits!